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Trend: Mexico City's new approach to solid

waste management
By Angeles Rodriguez
Friday, June 2, 2017

As one of the bigger solid waste producers in the world among global megacities, efficient waste
processing has become one of Mexico City's major challenges.

For example, improper waste disposal is usually the cause of clogged drains, which in turn can
lead to flooding during the yearly rainy season.

After the 2011 closure of Bordo Poniente – the city's largest landfill – caused an emergency
situation with garbage on the streets and the creation of illegal dumping sites, the local
authorities realized they needed a better waste management strategy. And they began to
implement innovative and cost-efficient solutions with a smaller impact on the environment.

In the past few years, the city government has begun to develop groundbreaking projects to put
the Mexican capital at the forefront of urban waste processing. Here we take a look at the
initiatives that are set to change the face of Mexico City's solid waste efforts.

WHAT IS URBAN SOLID WASTE?

Mexico's environment ministry SEMARNAT defines urban solid waste (RSU in its Spanish
acronym) as the waste produced in households, which originates through the disposal of
materials used in regular home activities, products that are consumed and their packaging, as
well as the waste that comes from activities carried out at commercial facilities or in the streets.
Hazardous waste or waste that needs special handling is not considered to be RSU.

According to local authorities, Mexico City produces around 13,000 tonnes of RSU a day,
12,700 of which are handled by the government-managed waste collection service provider. Of
the total, only 4,100 tonnes of the waste are reused through different processes, and 8,600
tonnes are disposed of in landfills, while the remainder is left unmanaged given that it is not put
out for collection.

WASTE-TO-ENERGY

One of the solutions the Mexico City government has decided to implement to treat the city's
RSU is the use of waste-to-energy technologies.

Authorities launched a tender last year for the design, construction, operation and
maintenance of a treatment plant that could take advantage of urban waste heat to generate
power.
The 11.5bn-peso (US$617mn) thermal solid waste treatment plant will treat about 4,595t of solid
waste daily, which will then be used to generate power – up to 965,000MWh/y – for the 12 lines
of the capital's metro system.

Although there are reportedly around 1,400 plants of this kind in the world, this will be the first
one in Latin America.

The plant will be built at the Bordo Poniente landfill, in the city's eastern area. Construction is
expected to wrap up in 2018 so that the facility can begin operating late that year or in early
2019.

The plant's contract was awarded in April 2017 under a 33-year provision service project (PPS)
model to a consortium comprised of water and waste solutions firm Proactiva Medio
Ambiente Mexico and French resource management company Veolia. The firms were hired
due to their international experience in implementing and operating such facilities in different
parts of the world.

(PICTURED: The waste-to-energy plant that is under construction in Mexico City.


CREDIT: Veolia.)

The government will start paying for the project once it begins to supply the stipulated amount of
electricity, with the plant becoming the local government's property after completion of the
contractual term.

Construction of the plant will not imply an additional financial burden for the government. City
authorities say the funds that are currently used to pay federal power utility CFE for supplying
energy to the metro system, as well as some of the resources spent on transporting solid waste
to landfills, will be reallocated to pay for the plant.

Local officials have said that thermal waste-to energy processes have delivered positive
environmental results in countries in Europe and Asia, with some plants operating for over 25
years. In the case of Veolia, the company opened its first thermal waste-to-energy plant in
France in the early 1990s.
This technology entails the combustion of non-recyclable waste which produces electricity and
heat for energy needs.

Speaking before the Mexico City legislature in May, a Proactiva executive noted that waste-to-
energy processing is different from traditional incineration given that the RSU are decomposed
through a controlled combustion process. Waste is used as fuel for generating power. The
burning fuel heats water into steam that drives a turbine to create electricity. The gases resulting
from the combustion process are neutralized before being released into the atmosphere.

Veolia says that this type of waste treatment process is friendlier to the environment, given that
it generates lower CO2 emissions. In addition, the unburned remains of combustion can be used
in the construction industry as aggregate for road beds, for example.

Apart from its more environmentally-friendly features, waste-to-energy plants are said to be
relatively noiseless and odorless.

ANAEROBIC DIGESTION

Last year, the Mexico City government also announced plans to launch a tender for the
construction of an anaerobic digestion plant to treat its organic waste.

The plant would reportedly treat 2,000 tonnes of organic waste a day and require a 4bn-peso
investment. Although the definite location of the plant has not been confirmed, it could be built
near the area of the Centro de Abastos, the city's main wholesale market for food and produce,
also in the east of the capital.

The tender is expected to be launched within the next two or three months.

In June last year, local authorities met with Centro de Abasto representatives to work on a
project to build an anaerobic digestion facility in the market's premises. At the time, government
officials said the plant would serve to reuse the organic waste produced at the site. They cited
reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and transport costs as reasons why the plant would
benefit the Centro de Abasto.

The waste would be sorted and treated on-site. Only those remains that could not be treated
would be sent to a landfill, according to the authorities.

According to the US Department of Energy's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy
(EERE), anaerobic digestion is an alternative to treat organic substances, including municipal
and food waste.

The agency defines the process of anaerobic digestion as follows: "typically, organic materials
are placed into a sealed tank called a digester, where it is broken down by a community of
microorganisms in three basic stages. First, one group of bacteria breaks down the biomass into
its component sugars, then a second group of organisms converts it into carbon dioxide,
hydrogen, ammonia, and organic acids. Finally, methane-producing anaerobic bacteria convert
these products into methane and carbon dioxide."

The biogas produced by the process can also be used to generate heat or energy, and serve as
a replacement for natural gas or as a renewable fuel.
GROUNDBREAKING INITIATIVES

Although the aforementioned plant would be the largest in the world, it would not be the first
facility to treat organic waste on site through anaerobic digestion.

At the end of May, local science, technology and innovation ministry SECITI opened a first pilot
plant under a program for the comprehensive management of organic waste, in the capital's
Milpa Alta district.

This facility is the first and only one in Mexico treating waste through thermophilic anaerobic
digestion processes – where digesters operate at temperatures of 43 to 55 degrees Celsius.

The plant was built at the premises of CANV, a wholesale market specialized in prickly pear
cactus, to specifically treat the cacti and vegetable waste produced at the site. The treated
waste will be used as manure to improve arable land and benefit local agricultural producers.

The small facility has a maximum waste treatment capacity of 100 tonnes per month, and it will
produce around 170m3 of biogas per day. The initiative was developed by local company
Sustentabilidad en Energía y Medio Ambiente (SUEMA), with a 13.7mn peso-grant from
SECITI.

Work on the plant started in 2015.

(PICTURED: A view of the new anaerobic digestion waste treatment pilot plant that
opened in the Milpa Alta district in May. CREDIT: SECITI.)